Bundled up against the icy breeze blowing from the snow-covered mountains across the valley, I was impressed. Moray may not be as monumental as Machu Picchu, or as cultural as Cuzco, but for me this often overlooked Sacred Valley destination is an example of unsurpassed Incan ingenuity.
The Moray complex consists of a series of amphitheater-style terraces, spiraling downward like inverse layer cakes. Or, if you prefer cosmic comparisons, like massive inverted crop circles, eerie in their perfection. But the most impressive thing about this site is its purpose: the Incas created and used Moray as a technologically simplistic yet very effective agricultural laboratory. They experimented with crop growing patterns, soil type, optimal growing temperatures, and seed varieties much in the way agricultural-focused scientific centers do today.
Climbing down to the first layer of one of the earthen bowls, at least one component of this agricultural complex becomes quickly obvious: the lower you go, the warmer is gets. Essentially, the Incas built their own custom designed microclimates. And by covering some layers with different soil types—imported from various locations across their empire—the Incas were able to add another variant to their experiments. Experts believe these ancient agronomists selected only the seeds of the plants that performed the best in each key microclimate, breeding them with other strong seeds to create several varieties. Crop diversity and adaptability is essential in a country as diverse as Peru, and it is worth noting Peru is home to over 2,000 varieties of potatoes, the region’s staple crop.
Moray’s sister site of Maras is no less conceptually impressive. The Salineras of Maras are a series of salt pans, shallow hillside tubs designed to collect warm salty water as it trickles out of a mountain via a small stream. Ancient experts redirected and mastered the water flow so that each pan could be filled with water, which would then evaporate, leaving behind the salt—a coveted inland good.
Today, the salt pans are owned and operated by locals from the small Sacred Valley village of Maras. Each family owns a specific pond, which is passed down through generations. The method of salt extraction—let nature do the work—has remained largely unchanged since the time of the Incas.
Balancing my way along the narrow salt-encrusted ledges rimming each pool, I can’t help but be captivated. Mineral extraction is supposed to be messy and invasive, not a procedure of beauty. However, as the day draws to a close, I notice how each pool catches hues of the setting sun, creating the appearance of hundreds of brilliant white framed photographs. The true balancing act isn’t done by me and my wobbly feet, but by the Salineras and its operators, who manage to encompass nature, industry, tourism, and tradition all in one spectacular spot.
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